So we left our heroine, Mary Ann Davis on the cusp of having entered the county beauty pageant to compete for prize money which she desperately needed to go to medical assistant school in California. Mary Ann’s career goals were limited in her little town so she had decided she wanted to be an assistant for a plastic surgeon. She was thinking the grass was greener much farther away from her little town. Mary Ann had received much support from her family and friends, but not from the evil Carly. What happens now? Who will win? Will Mary Ann leave? Well, let’s find out…
Backstage at the event, I was a nervous rural psychopath. Joey, Eliza, and grandma were sitting out in the front row, pleased as could be. Grandma looked so nice wearing her best navy dress and little plastic imitation pearls. Eliza’s nails were painted bright red, and Joey was wearing black shoes that he said he shined up like new money. I reminded him that any money was good either old or new. Eliza stuffed me into a formal dress that grandma, Joey and I pooled our money to buy from a shop called Connie’s Closet, although, in reality, there was no Connie and the building was too large to be a closet. Eliza had also done my hair in her signature Angel hairstyle. It was just a little much. Wearing makeup was so hot, and I was hoping I wouldn’t end up looking like the raccoon that got into our trash the other night. Girls from all over the county were running around there, and I was completely out of my element.
Jane Fields, the pageant director came by to remind us of the procedures. “Remember how to hold the flowers? Show me your smiles. Now walk straight out on the stage and don’t slouch! Remember you are representing Rutherford County, The Big-Hearted Little County of Texas. Good luck, girls!”
Round one and everybody had to do their talent routine. Carly Adams dropped one of her batons. I was hoping she would do the fire routine, but no such luck probably because there was so much flammable stuff around. Freda Stanver sang, “God Bless America” and almost strangled herself on the last verse. I had been practicing Morning Has Broken for a fortnight now as a piano solo. The piano was about the only thing fancy I had learned to do because my grandma had been adamant about that. I was the last one to perform. As I was playing about how bright the morning would be tomorrow, I saw the judges shifting around in their metal chairs. There were five of them for this event. Five! Mr. Wilborn, the banker, Mr. Teever, the grocery mart manager, Mr. Oliver, the funeral director, Mr. Roscoe, the tractor house owner, and Miss Judy Wilson, the city librarian. Miss Wilson had been so good to help me research medical assisting career outlook in the state of California. I was intently studying the judges for possible reactions when out of the corner of my eye, I saw Carly’s daddy hand a small envelope to Mr. Wilborn on the end seat. Could it be a bribe? I didn’t miss a note, but I thought to myself that morning wasn’t the only thing broken around here.
“Very nice,” said Judge Judy Wilson after I had finished. I smiled my best fake smile. The girls were excused to go backstage as the judges were preparing to ask some all-encompassing questions: “What did you contribute to your school, and what will you contribute to your community, and to your country?”
Did we ever get some good answers to that? Angela wanted to be the first woman president, Carly said she contributed leadership to the school, another girl said she contributed love and support to her family and friends. I just wanted to grow up and work for all kids to receive the best possible education to contribute to the country. We were Contributors!
Round two found four of us on stage. Carly was one of them, but she had actually gone into the office to take a phone call. I couldn’t imagine who she was talking to! Why was that even allowed? I stayed on that blasted stage with those blinding lights; I was hanging in there. I looked out at the panel of judges. There was Mr. Roscoe. He cheered me up; he had always liked me ever since I volunteered toe help tutor migrant students in English. There was grandma, Eliza, and Joey still out there somewhere if I could only see, but I couldn’t because of those blasted lights. I was still hoping for second place. I really needed that money.
It was time for a short break so we headed backstage again. I was with the other finalists. Angela, Amanda, and Carly. Carly was hateful to all of the girls. Amanda was looking for some cigarettes she had hidden. Angela turned to me,
“Fancy meeting your here.” She snarled. I swear it was a snarl.
“Yep, I’m not really pageant material.”
“I’d say so,” Carly said in a most disinterested fashion.
“So who do you think will win?”
“I’ve no idea,” I said.
“Well, everybody knows Amanda smokes, so she isn’t a good example. Carly might win, she wins everything. Nobody takes you seriously from what I understand, so that gives me a pretty good chance,” she gave a short smile with perfect pink lipstick and walked away.
“You know, MaryAnn, let me break it down for you. I hate to say it, but any girl representing this county has to come from a respectable family. It isn’t that you’re that bad, but ya’ll just don’t have anything much. Your house is marginal, you can’t really afford to go to school, you just need to accept your station in life and make the best of it. I mean it is affluent people that run the world, you know.”
I thought of my grandfather building our house. He was a master carpenter with a soul of gold. He had carefully cut and nailed each board in it. He had carved the brackets for the big wraparound porch with the swing where grandma and I would sit and look out at her roses. I had missed him every day since he had passed away. That house was a legacy of love that he had left grandma.
I was astounded and a little hurt. What was I really doing here anyway? All that was coming from Joey putting me up to this was that I was gonna be embarrassed. This was a hard lesson to learn. I was making my way to the bathroom. I thought I would just slip out the back way. It would be over soon. I could go to the Dairy Queen and call Joey to pick me up. He would understand that I couldn’t go through the humiliation.
“Where do you think you are going?” I heard a voice and looked up. It was Eliza!
“Umm, the uh, water fountain…” I answered.
“You just turn right around and head on up to that stage and take your place.”
“No, no missy, you committed to this. You’re gonna follow it through. MaryAnn don’t quit. She won’t ever quit!” Eliza said sternly.
So I did just that. You don’t mess with Eliza when’s she’s mad.
Judge Judy Wilson was in charge of reading the results. The third runner-up was announced. It would be over soon. The second runner up was Carly Adams! Carly glared out into the crowd. I couldn’t believe my luck. It looked like I might get second place after all.
The world stopped a little bit right there as we were suspended in time. Around us, the fields of wheat, cotton, and sunflowers rotated on their own little axis. The fish in the stock pounds stopped swimming. The hunting dogs looked up expectantly from their evening cool spots. Silence ruled supreme. Judge Judy Wilson was fanning herself with the papers. She looked nervous. She tucked a stray hair behind her ear and smiled awkwardly. She fanned herself some more. With my finely honed senses, I could make out little beads of perspiration forming on her upper lip. She cleared her throat. Could she be nervous, I wondered.
“The first runner up is….. the first… Ahem, first runner up is… Angela Jones. Mary Ann Davis is Miss Rutherford County!” she announced with a flourish.
Damn! I was stunned. I was Miss Rutherford County from The Big-Hearted Little County of Texas! This was almost worse than being Miss Merry Christmas but in a good way. I never meant to win. I just wanted second place. Something had to be wrong here. Did they have that check? Now, I would probably be out of cotton and into watermelons. How long would that last? I couldn’t be a spokeswoman forever. There was a beach on the West Coast with my name on it. The roses were stuffed in my arms and I walked straight and smiled and waved at everyone in the whole big little county. Joey was waving back at me in his shiny shoes. I was money happy but humiliated all at the same time.
After the contest was over, the summer was a blur. I collected the prize money and the scholarship, did my farm speaking duties, then I got ready to leave for California. I had managed to get into the medical assisting school, and had even gotten another scholarship! I had plastic surgery written all over me. Grandma and Joey were sad, guess they thought I would never go, but I had to try. Anyway, I could always come back. We said our goodbyes and I walked off that big front porch of the house that my grandpa had built.
You know, it was harder than what I thought it would be. I drove through the streets of the little town one last time, half expecting Ollie Oliver jump out and chase my car down the road and do his siren imitation, but he was nowhere to be found. I turned my car onto the main highway and passed the median that ran down the center of Main Street. I liked the little red geraniums outside Rusty’s Barber Shop. Down the road, I saw Ruddy Bobby on his tractor plowing his fields. It was an air conditioned cab with radio probably playing The Babys, Everytime I Think of You. He didn’t see me so he would probably forget to think of me. I thought that was best. Out on the highway, the road sign loomed large just like the sky in our little village. Dallas was just 340 miles away. In my rear view mirror, I caught a glimpse of another sign: